LONDON -- In the immediate aftermath of his victory over Ivan Lendl Sunday, Pat Cash said what all first-time Wimbledon champions say: "I don't think this has hit me yet."

Monday morning, it hit him. Cash walked into a day-after news conference and found a dozen TV crews, a couple dozen photographers and close to 100 reporters waiting for him. "Good God," Cash said, "I've become an important person."

Very important. Not just because he is the Wimbledon champion, but because of what his emergence as a top player can mean to the game. Cash can be to the men's game what Steffi Graf has been to the women's game this year: a fresh new face who can play the game and put some personality into it at the same time.

"I think there are a hell of a lot of good players out there," Cash said. "Ivan's a great champion and so is Boris Becker. Then there's {Stefan} Edberg, {Mats} Wilander, {Jimmy} Connors and, I hope, {John} McEnroe."

Next to each name mentioned by Cash, with the exception of Becker, one must put an asterisk because of age, uncertainty, lack of personality -- take your pick. Men's tennis needs a great rivalry right now. On the women's side, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert's time as rivals may be nearly over, but Graf has come forward to replace Evert.

The same isn't true on the men's side. Becker-Lendl isn't likely to capture people's imaginations for the simple reason that Lendl doesn't inspire people. Resolute and hard-working though he is, Lendl will never have the flair or the magnetism that Becker and Cash are capable of.

That's where Cash comes in. He does not have Becker's natural charm, but he does have appeal. His race to the friends box to greet his family after his victory Sunday certainly will be long-remembered at Wimbledon. Imagine a Cash-Becker Wimbledon final a year from now. Or even a Cash-Becker U.S. Open final (far less likely) this year.

Cash is capable of being a rival for Becker. He is not a grass court wonder who is lost when not playing on something green and soft. He is the product of Australian grass courts, but, as his coach Ian Barclay pointed out, he grew up on clay and developed his ground strokes first.

"Pat couldn't even hit a smash until he was 14," Barclay said. "But I really think that's the way you develop a great tennis player. Teach him the basics first. Anything else can be developed. But if you don't have the basic strokes, you'll never be a top player."

Ironically, Lendl is a perfect example of this theory. Only in the last few years has Lendl developed a serve-and-volley game to go with his remarkable ground strokes. Although he will never be the natural on grass that Becker, Cash or McEnroe are, he has become a very good grass court player. He has yet to win Wimbledon but he has been to two straight finals and four semifinals in five years. If he were any other player in the world, that record would be hailed as exemplary.

But he has not won and, with 30 beginning to loom -- he will be 28 for the next Wimbledon -- and younger people such as Becker and Cash at points in their careers where they should continue to improve, Lendl must be wondering if he will ever win here.

"Another year is gone now," he said Sunday. "I hope I will win here someday. I don't know if you can be considered a great player without winning Wimbledon but I do think people would agree that {Ken} Rosewall was a great player, and he never won here."

Lendl is a great player and not winning Wimbledon won't change that. What would change if he won Wimbledon is something intangible. Being great and being one of the greats are two different things. Lendl isn't far away from the latter, but he isn't there yet.

Cash and Becker are much further away than Lendl is. Both have won Grand Slams events only here and they must prove themselves winners on the other surfaces to move into Lendl's class. Both have shown themselves capable. Cash was a U.S. Open semifinalist at 19, Becker at 18. Becker, we know, is driven to be No. 1 in the world. Cash said he has now accomplished his No. 1 goal in tennis.

His drive will now be tested. "When I was looking at the trophy at the {champions} dinner last night, I couldn't believe my name was on it with all those great players," he said. "I'm not sure I even deserve to be there."

He richly deserves to be there. His play during the fortnight was extraordinary -- he dropped just one set -- and his recovery from the back problems that plagued him two summers ago makes the achievement that much more noteworthy. In fact, as recently as three weeks before the tournament, Cash was worried about his back.

"I was serving a lot of topspin during Queens {a Wimbledon warmup} and my back began to get very sore," he said. "I had the same symptoms I had when the back first went bad and it scared me. I called my dad in Australia and the next morning my physio {trainer} showed up in town. He helped me get through it all."

Three years ago, when Cash burst onto the scene by reaching the semifinals here and at the U.S. Open, he was very much a bad boy. He had a bad temper, he cursed and threw rackets. There is still a little of that in him -- he was fined $5,000 in Dusseldorf for going off there in May -- but he is more self-controlled. He is a father now and spends a lot of his time here in London with his girlfriend and 13-month-old son.

He isn't like the old-time Australian stars -- "I don't think Harry Hopman would wear a diamond earring," he said -- and that has earned him some disfavor back home. But Cash says he is more relaxed now, though he worries about what winning will do to his private life. It will not help it at all, especially living here. Cash, with his flashy good looks and Norwegian girlfriend, will attract a lot of attention from the tabloids.

But his arrival as a star only can be good for tennis. Becker was a breath of fresh air two years ago. Cash can be one now, faults and all. How important is he? Consider this: The two best stories at Wimbledon, along with Cash's triumph, were the odyssey of Jimmy Connors and the enduring wonder of the Navratilova-Evert rivalry.

Connors is 34, Evert 32, Navratilova 30. Unfortunately for tennis, they won't be around forever. Cash should be around for a good while. And now, he is an important person. That's good news for his sport.